Authors: Jenny Trout
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #General, #hamlet, #fairytale retelling, #jennifer armintrout, #historical fantasy, #romeo and juliet, #Romance, #teen
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Armintrout. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Edited by Shannon Godwin
Cover design by Amber Shah
Cover art by Raquel Neira
Print ISBN 978-1-62266-158-9
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-159-6
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition February 2014
Thanks to Nick Harris, Miriam Kriss, and The Story Foundation. I had a really good time creating this book with you!
Two figures, both alike in stature and purpose, ducked beneath a bridge in Verona. The swollen river made mud of its banks. The men slid and fought against it, their torches flickering.
“Let’s turn back, Romeo,” Friar Laurence urged, pushing down the hood of his rough brown robe. “Can we not let poor Juliet rest in peace?”
The younger man fixed his friend with a critical eye. “Peace? My beloved Juliet knows no peace, only eternal torment. She took her own life, and that is my fault.”
They pressed on, Romeo’s steps becoming more determined the weaker his limbs grew. The poison that had incapacitated him, but not killed him, had ravaged his body. Tonight he traveled farther beyond his father’s walls than he’d dared since the night he’d returned to Verona. Even though the prince had lifted his banishment, the streets still felt unfriendly. Although a truce had been called between Montague and Capulet, there were plenty of young men who would like nothing more than to avenge their kin by killing Romeo.
Their destination lay far from the city center, in a small encampment of hovels beside the river. Faces peeked from behind tattered curtains as Romeo and Laurence traversed the narrow lanes between the dilapidated buildings, coming finally to the very wall of the city itself. It was at this border that they found the
Her door was painted red, surrounded by talismans on long chains that hung from the recessed arch. Romeo ducked beneath a dried and crumbling chicken’s foot and brushed aside a crudely shaped metal eye.
“I go no further.” Friar Laurence backed away from the threshold, crossing himself. “Romeo, I warn you, this is a fearful path you tread. Your soul will be lost to darkness. You will perish in the flames of hell. I beg you not to do this.”
“I am already in hell.” Romeo pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The interior of the witch’s house was hot. It smelled of earth and the wood-like scent of herbs not used for cooking. A bent shape stood before the hearth, where a sulfurous cauldron bubbled. Romeo covered his nose and coughed.
“Ah, I was expecting a visitor this night.” The strega lifted her head, the veil of coins that obscured her face tinkling like fairy bells. “Your man of God could not dissuade you?”
“Nothing will dissuade me.” Even as he said it, his doubtful eyes took in the squawking black bird in the cage near the fire, the jars and bottles lining the shelves, murky objects floating in their slimy depths. “Benvolio told me you can communicate with the dead. He said you made him a charm to ward off attacks by ghosts.”
The strega shuffled across the room, her coins and jewelry clattering. She pointed a bony finger at a chair, and bade Romeo sit. “You are unwell. Poison, was it?”
“Poison, yes.” He could still taste the bite of it, still feel the stinging numbness in his veins. The physical evidence of it lay under his clothes, the dark stain of dying flesh spreading still, a little more each day. “Not enough.”
“That’s because you went to an apothecary,” the strega sniffed. “If you want poison to kill a man dead, you must see a witch.”
“I’ll…remember that. In the future.” Romeo clasped his hands and rested his elbows on his knees. “I came to you for knowledge of the dead. I will pay whatever it takes.”
“The price depends on the knowledge.” She rummaged through a trunk and produced a large, black bowl. Setting it on the floor, she reached into her clothes—it seemed she wore layers upon layers of tattered fabrics in all shades and thickness—and withdrew a vial. The sight of it winking in the light caused something to recoil inside Romeo. Too recently he had held a similar vessel.
Then everything had gone so wrong…
“What do you wish to know?” the strega asked, emptying the thick, black liquid into the bowl.
“My love, Juliet—” his voice trembled at her name, and he took a moment to repress his anguish.
“It was her you drank poison for.” The strega swirled the liquid in the basin. “I see her.”
“How do you know it’s her?” He leaned forward, peering into the dish. He saw nothing but his own reflection.
“The same as you know the sun rises in the east. I simply know.” She clucked softly behind her veil of coins. “Bound to you by the thread of holy matrimony. A secret wedding.”
Romeo swallowed back unexpected tears. “Yes, she was my…she was my wife.”
It still sounded strange to his ears. A wife was something an older man had, a man like his father. At only eighteen, Romeo could not imagine being so old one day. Perhaps that had been the poison’s cruelest jest, to let him believe his life would end in the vigor of his youth, only to return him with none of that youth left in body or mind.
“The young are foolish and brash.” The witch’s tone softened. “Black of hair, brown of eye. As fair as any maid from Verona.”
“Fairer,” he corrected her, his hand clenching to a fist. His nails bit into his palm as he struggled to hold back his tears. “Is she happy?”
The strega considered a moment, drawing one finger across the surface of the liquid. When she brought her hand away, it shone wet and red. “No. She is in despair. That is all I can see.”
His heart squeezed tightly. He couldn’t find his breath. He had hoped to hear that she was in a better place, as friar Laurence had assured him so many times. “There must be some way to assuage her grief. Some way to tell her—”
“Her eyes and ears are as closed as any dead woman’s. Whatever torments her will torment her for eternity.” There was no comfort to be had from the strega’s voice. She reached out one gnarled hand, palm up. “If that is all—”
“It is not all!” Romeo shot to his feet, placing his hand on the dagger at his side. He did not have the strength to use it, but the witch couldn’t know that. “You know dark magic. You can bring her back.”
The strega slowly unhooked her veil, letting the net of coins fall to her lap. Her face was as aged and withered as her hands. One eye protruded grotesquely, a milky blue, while the other, shrewd and black, fixed on him. “I no longer do such magic.”
“But it can be done?” Romeo asked, and when she nodded, he unsheathed his knife and prodded her knobby chin with the point. “Then you had better do it, witch.”
The old woman did not tremble in fear of him. She grabbed the blade and pushed it away; it felt as though he cut himself instead of her. He dropped the dagger and stepped back, cursing as blood coursed down his arm from the slice that split his palm. Faster than he could have anticipated, the old witch grabbed his wrist and jerked his hand over the basin, letting his blood fall into it.
“I no longer work such magic,” she repeated, swirling the blood in the bowl with her fingertip. “But there are others. To bring someone back, first you must find them. Are you prepared to walk with devils, boy?”
He nodded, his quick breaths flaring his nostrils.
“Are you willing to brave serpents and fire, to fight the keepers of the dead and hear ghosts speak?” She pushed his hand away. The blood on his palm stopped flowing at once, and the wound sealed itself, burning with invisible fire. He gasped and clutched his hand, watching with horror as the old witch’s good eye rolled back in her head and she called out words he did not understand.
In the bowl, the liquid lightened, then glowed and turned an unearthly blue. A maelstrom formed in the shallow basin, and lightning crackled on its surface. All the while, the old woman chanted and howled, until the room filled with a spectral wind that seemed to originate inside the blue light. The bird screamed in its cage, and jars and bottles rattled and broke on their shelves.
The surface of the liquid rose in waves capped with frothy blue. As the peaks grew higher, the aquamarine light faded, leaving only a bubbling, roiling fount of blood rising as tall as Romeo himself. The burbling red took shape, into a form so familiar that Romeo at once recoiled from it and yearned to touch it.
His Juliet stood before him, or at least, the shape of her, frozen in blood, monochromatic crimson, but unmistakably her. Thick chains bound her across neck and waist; manacles clasped her wrists. Her eyes were the worst of all, open, bloody, blank and unseeing, yet somehow still accusing. Still hating him, for having let her go before him.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his throat raw with emotion. He reached for her, knowing it a foolish thing to have done before his fingertips brushed her bloody cheek.
The vision of Juliet opened its mouth impossibly, terribly wide and a bone withering scream burst from her at the same time the vision burst, raining blood over the room.
The strega braced herself with her ancient hands on either side of the bowl, and lifted her head, the blood running in rivulets down her face. “You must go north. You will find the man who can help you there.”
“North?” He conjured up a map in his mind. “Grezzana?”
“Farther.” The strega pushed up from the floor, righting herself. She looked smaller somehow, more fragile than fearsome.
The eyebrow over her good eye arched in exasperation. “Farther. Farther than you have ever traveled. Over the mountains, to a castle by the sea. The seat of a murdered king.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off. “I know no more. In payment, I ask only that you never darken my door again.” She lifted the knife from the floor. He reached for it, and she threw it, so that the blade stuck in the lintel. At once, her terrible, craggy face transformed, her skin going smooth and youthful, her spider web hair turning to glossy black silk. She narrowed her eyes, no longer milky but deep black, and pointed to where the blade quivered in the wood. “Leave it. Let its absence remind you never to cross a sister of the fortunes again.”
When Romeo emerged, Friar Laurence rose to his feet. The worry that creased his brow relented only a bit. “I heard such howling, I thought you must surely be in the grips of the devil himself.”
“No devils here.” Romeo made no mention of the dagger. It embarrassed him now, to think he had threatened a woman so powerful. “To find those, I must go north.”